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Tobias Brandt discusses the impact of religion on the American character

On Tuesday, October 2nd, IWP student Tobias Brandt delivered a lecture on the “Impact of Religion on the American Character” as part of the Student Speaker Series at IWP. This lecture was based on a paper that he submitted for IWP’s course on American Founding Principles and Foreign Policy.

In his lecture, Tobias argued that religion played an important role in shaping and defining the American character, despite the fact that our political system emphasizes a separation of Church and State. He explained how strong religious presences helped shape the early success of our Republic and how the U.S. would otherwise not have developed in the same way.

Tobias analyzed the influence of religion on the Founders and on the documents that they authored. He noted that the Constitution, as the founding document of the nation, is inherently secular. Perhaps the most convincing argument for this proposition is the First Amendment which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Tobias explains that while the First Amendment is expressly secular, the Founders who wrote it were theistic rationalists. These individuals held a belief system which fused religion (Christianity) and rationalism (which is the predominant element). The Founders were unconvinced by religious doctrine, but they still viewed religion in the highest regard; it was intrinsically linked to morality, and it was necessary to maintain peace.

Tobias suggested that if the Founders were theological rationalists, then the writings of the Founders are based on this worldview as well. For example, George Washington is known to have added “So help me God” to his acceptance of the oath for office when he became the first U.S. President, but he remained very skeptical of religious documents. Tobias explained that John Adams regarded the Constitution as being written solely for moral and religious people, arguing further that human passions are stronger than an army. Furthermore, Congress even recommended anti-sinning rules in 1778; the motivation to attain higher morality through legislation is directly linked with theistic rationalism.

Tobias noted that Alexis de Tocqueville and other prominent thinkers also discussed morality and its importance within a democracy. De Tocqueville believed that religion was a powerful tool and that it was compatible with a representative democracy. For example, democracies thrive and pride themselves on the equality of treatment of their citizens. Tobias argued that this assumption of universal equality is shared with Catholicism. Historically, though, religious organizations have been persecuted. For example, in the French Revolution, religious skeptics directed their ire towards individual churches and at religion as a whole. While French revolutionaries attempted to destroy religion in the name of democracy, their actions resulted in widespread tyranny and terror. In the United States, however, the Founders advanced democracy through religion. Despotic regimes can exist without religious faith; however, democratic societies that embrace freedom and liberty cannot.

Tobias argued that religion – in terms of a recognition of some sort of higher power – must continue to remain involved in American national security.

Tobias Brandt is originally from Germany and graduated from the University of Hamburg with a degree in Middle Eastern and Religious Studies in 2015. For his bachelor’s Thesis, he analyzed al-Qaeda’s propaganda strategy on the basis of original Arabic documents. He is currently studying Statecraft and International Affairs with a specialization in International Politics at IWP. His key research areas are U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the role of religion in politics, as well as the transatlantic relationship. 

Tobias Brandt